Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bruce N. Waller's "Against Moral Responsibility"

Bruce N. Waller is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University. He is the author of The Natural Selection of Autonomy, Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues, and other books.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Against Moral Responsibility, and reported the following: 
Page 99 of Against Moral Responsibility discusses Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but it focuses on the work of a very insightful contemporary American philosopher, John Martin Fischer. Fischer is a dedicated defender of moral responsibility, but he is acutely aware of the challenges posed to moral responsibility by advances in our scientific understanding of the causes of human behavior. Like almost everyone – whether philosopher, baker or candlestick maker – Fischer regards the possibility of giving up moral responsibility as almost too absurd and awful to seriously consider. One way of preserving moral responsibility from scientific threat is to narrow the scope of morally responsible behavior to a very small (but vitally important) range. Fischer develops an appealing version of this approach: We are morally responsible when we are freely writing the narratives of our own lives. But creative as this moral responsibility model is, it is difficult to see how it can justify us in holding anyone morally responsible for his or her life narrative. Ebenezer Scrooge writes the narrative of his own selfish life, and reflectively approves of that miserly narrative, judging himself to have “grown so much wiser.” But as the great novelist peels back the layers that shaped Scrooge’s steadfastly selfish character, the grounds for holding Scrooge morally responsible for his life narrative – a narrative he himself wrote and approves – become ever more doubtful.

Given the relentless pressure of our scientific understanding to prise moral responsibility out of every corner in which it attempts to take refuge, the real question is why we find it so difficult to contemplate the total rejection of moral responsibility (the moral responsibility that props up our system of blame, punishment, “justice,” and reward). First, there is confusion about what is involved in the rejection of moral responsibility: it is typically (but mistakenly) assumed that we would also be rejecting freedom, self-control, morality, and personal achievement. Second, belief in moral responsibility is deeply entrenched in primitive “strike-back” retributive emotions, and it seems to us inconceivable that such a deep emotional response might be unjustifiable. And finally, the moral responsibility system of belief has become so broad and pervasive that rejecting moral responsibility seems absurd or even incoherent. Thus we are only beginning to explore the psychological, social, and institutional freedom that would result from the total demise of the moral responsibility system.
Learn more about Against Moral Responsibility at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue